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Tsunami Children Lost, Vulnerable

An untold number of children of all nationalities have disappeared in the chaos of the tsunami disaster.

Their whereabouts are unknown and there are fears that they may have been seized upon by those who traffic in sex, reports CBS News Correspondent Sheila MacVicar.

Unaccompanied children urgently need to be identified and put in foster care as their families are traced, Carolyn Miles of the charity Save The Children tells the CBS News Early Show. "Just the other day, we were in a village where we found 700 children that were unaccompanied in Indonesia," she says.

Child welfare groups such as UNICEF are concerned that child trafficking gangs — who are well-established in Indonesia — are whisking orphaned children into trafficking networks, selling them into forced labor or even sexual slavery in wealthier neighboring countries such as Malaysia and Singapore.

"I'm sure it's happening," said Birgithe Lund-Henriksen, child protection chief in UNICEF's Indonesia office. "It's a perfect opportunity for these guys to move in."

Such trafficking, if true, would vastly deepen the suffering of children already struck hard by the disaster: Indonesia estimates 35,000 Acehnese children lost one or both parents in the disaster.

Indonesia has slapped restrictions on youngsters leaving the country, ordered police commanders to be on the lookout for trafficking, and posted special guards in refugee camps.

In Thailand, Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai said Tuesday that his government was working closely with hospitals to prevent human trafficking gangs from taking advantage of the situation, although he stressed that there was no firm indication that they were.

There have been dozens of unconfirmed reports of orphaned children taken by unidentified people. One, about a Swedish boy, Kristian Walker, was discredited by Thai officials.

Fueling the suspicions, many Indonesians have received mobile phone text messages this week inviting them to adopt orphans from Aceh. The police are investigating the messages. It's not clear whether they are pranks, real adoption offers or linked to trafficking networks.

But child welfare experts warn the messages could be a sign that children are being removed from the province, reducing their chances of being reunited with relatives or surviving parents.

The hardest hit area in Indonesia — Aceh — is not far from the port city of Medan and nearby island of Batam, which are well-known transit points for gangs shipping children and teenagers out of Indonesia.

"This is a situation that lends itself to this kind of exploitation," UNICEF director Carol Bellamy told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday. "Our concern here is ... whether these children are frankly turned into child slaves, if you will, or abused and exploited."

"They could be put to work — domestic labor, sex trade, a whole series of potential abuses," she added.

Bellamy said it was not clear whether any children already had been trafficked, but she couldn't rule it out. Such smuggling did not appear to be widespread and UNICEF and other agencies were working hard to make sure it didn't become a bigger problem, she added.

Indonesian officials were already taking steps.

Bellamy applauded the government's announcement Monday that it was temporarily barring anyone from taking Acehnese children out of the country.

"This policy is aimed at anticipating the issue of child trafficking as well as illegal adoption of orphans," Justice Minister Hamid Awaluddin said.

Children must stay in Aceh until all are registered, a project that could take a month. After that, they will be allowed to leave, preferably for other parts of Sumatra.

UNICEF and aid agencies plan to set up special centers focused on children's needs within five Aceh refugee camps by the end of the week, and 15 more soon after, she said. Workers will help protect children from traffickers and try to identify and register them.

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